Two mind-bending historical novels

Postmodern historical fiction

Earlier this month I visited Prague with some friends, and I decided on the perfect book to read while there: HHhH by Laurent Binet, which deals with the Nazi occupation of the Czech Republic and which I had been wanting to re-read for a while. As usual, my reading plans didn’t work out and I didn’t actually manage to start reading it while we were away… but no matter, I’ve read it since coming back!

I thought I had first read HHhH a long time ago, but the inside cover reveals that I bought it from the secondhand bookshop in which I used to work sometime in April 2014 – and knowing me, I probably didn’t get round to reading it until months later. In any case, I have only a very hazy memory of reading it the first time. I know that although I did enjoy it, I was quite mystified by it – I’d never read anything quite like it.

But then: this year, as part of a Hispanic literature module at uni, I read a novel called Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas. Again, when I read it on my own I was a little bewildered by it – but the lectures we had about it unveiled the genius residing just under the surface. Once I understood what the author was doing, Soldiers of Salamis reminded me of something I’d read about the Nazi occupation of Prague…

The two books are very different to each other in terms of tone and overall objective, but they are both postmodern novels concerned with the nature of history, fiction and memory.

Soldiers of Salamis – Javier Cercas, translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean

Soldiers of Salamis

Soldiers of Salamis is a novel in three parts. The first part is about the narrator (who shares the author’s name but is, in fact, a separate character) researching an episode of the Spanish Civil War for a book that he wants to write. This book, itself called Soldiers of Salamis, forms the middle part of the novel. The final section is made up of the narrator doing further research into one particular figure – but it transpires that he actually does this research before writing any of the book that we hold in our hands. So basically, it’s a bit of a mindfuck: we’ve got Javier Cercas the author, Javier Cercas the narrator, Soldiers of Salamis the three-part book we are reading which is written by Javier Cercas the author, and Soldiers of Salamis the middle part of the whole book, which is a metafictional book written by Javier Cercas the narrator. Got it? (This was a nightmare to write about in my exam, because I kept having to write stuff like: “Soldiers of Salamis (by which I mean…)” and “Javier Cercas (as in the narrator, not the author)…”)

On top of all that craziness, the book gets even more cryptic in order to point out things like the pitfalls of conventional historical novels and the unreliability and importance of individual and collective memory. For example, the author inserts deliberately incorrect details about his life, which serve to distance himself from the narrator. More importantly, there are deliberately incorrect details about the historical episode that the book is concerned with (wrong dates, incorrectly spelt names etc.), which is intended to make the reader question the historical verity of the book. However, this seems to me to only work if you already know the facts – or else the book is prompting you to do your own research to work out what is true and what is distorted or invented. The narrator recounts conversations that he had with first- or second-hand witnesses during his research, and although he is open about his unreliable memory of these conversations, he is, at the same time, over-precise about trivial facts, such as what they ate during the meeting, going as far as saying how fast they ate and what was left on each plate at the end of the meal. The novel is full of partial truths and a mix of real and invented characters – and it is left up to the reader themselves to decide what is truth and what is fiction.

Soldiers of Salamis is therefore more focused on examining the nature of historical fiction than on expanding the reader’s understanding of the Spanish Civil War. It is an extremely clever book, and I admire it from a ‘technical’ standpoint, but it is not altogether accessible – after all, I only learnt all this stuff about what the author was trying to achieve by attending multiple lectures!

On the other hand, HHhH is very accessible because it’s upfront about what it is trying to achieve, it’s extremely educational from a historical point of view, and on top of that it is woven with humour and irony. Having read Soldiers of Salamis, I came at it with different expectations from when I first picked it up a couple of years ago (when I expected it to be a ‘straightforward’ historical novel), but whether that changed my reading of it, I don’t know.

HHhH – Laurent Binet, translated from the French by Sam Taylor

HHhH

HHhH is about a mission called Operation Anthropoid: two Czechoslovakian parachutists are sent to Nazi-occupied Prague to assassinate the notorious Reinhard Heydrich. It is structured in 257 chapters, which are so short that there are often two to a page – and the chapter numbers have replaced page numbers. For the most part, the book is ‘grounded’ by the narrator, who writes about his research process, worries about conveying the exact truth and not fictionalising the characters, and even in the more ‘fictionalised’ sections, jumps in with comments and opinions. He is at times full of doubt about his capabilities; at other times, he is scathing about novels and films that attempt to address the same subject. I felt that I could trust the narrator and was confident that everything he wrote was backed up (to some degree) by historical evidence. There was occasional backtracking, such as:

I’ve been talking rubbish, the victim of both a faulty memory and an overactive imagination.

and:

This scene is not really useful, and on top of that I practically made it up. I don’t think I’m going to keep it.

These only serve to make the text seem more genuine – an honest look at the writing process. It’s difficult to know how ‘constructed’ this effect is; how much the narrator’s writing process differs from that of the author’s. Maybe I’m completely wrong, but I’m inclined to treat the narrator as an entirely fictitious creation, which would be an ironic twist given that the narrator is so scathing about “fudging reality”. As he points out, it is equally dangerous to assume that something truthful is fiction as it is to assume that something fictional is true. But the beauty here is that, whether the historical element is told through a fictional narrative frame or not, those historical figures and their actions are absolutely true. And it is this of which we have to continually remind ourselves – the narrator has to constantly point out that the characters were real people and that these things really did happen, because it is all too easy to absorb these things as narratives; our brain is hardwired to seek out stories and to create characters from real people.

All in all, HHhH is a truly mind-blowing book. The guiding presence of the narrator, with his simultaneously humorous and poignant interjections, results in the emotional impact of the events magnifying in a way that a non-fiction book would be hard pressed to achieve. I urge you to read it.

I just hope that, however bright and blinding the veneer of fiction that covers this fabulous story, you will still be able to see through it to the historical reality that lies behind.

Please feel free to comment if you have read either of these books, or if you know of anything similar – I’d love to hear from you! 🙂

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